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The Recession is Over, Now I Start the Depression

This is a guest article by Larry Tabor of Palisades, New York, a long-time subscriber and commentator on the woodheat email discussion group. Larry is not a professional in the wood heat field, but is a well-informed user and a friend of woodheat.org and The Woodpile


Over the past two years economic pundits have said we are in a recession, defined flippantly as starting when your neighbor loses his job. Certainly today, with US unemployment at around 10%, and Canadian unemployment in the high single digits, you may know people who have lost their jobs.

A depression is said to be signaled when you lose your own job. That is where I am today.

I lost my job as a research scientist because my company was bought out and the resulting reorganization eliminated almost twenty thousand employees. Of course I know it is not personal - it is just business, as they say, but the effect on my household is still the same.

This is where The Woodpile article Thinking the unthinkable about woodheat in April 2010, turns personal. The article was about household energy strategies in tough times. The quick summary is that when times are tough, or conventional heating fuels become either scarce or expensive, people will do what they have to do to protect their family and keep them warm. One way to stay warm is to turn to wood heating and away from heating sources like electricity, oil, natural gas or coal. Wood heat is almost always less expensive than the conventional fuels, outside major cities. This is because it is usually produced locally and is not burdened by the corporate profit model. Even better in tough times, it can be cut from your own woodlot or scavenged from your town’s green waste disposal program.

The move towards wood heat in difficult times is a well-established pattern. Over the past forty years, whenever homeowners felt uncertain, they turned in big numbers to wood fuel for their household heating needs. It happened in the seventies after the Arab oil embargo. It happened during the severe recession of the early eighties, and it happened in the 90’s after ice storms decimated the northeast electrical grid. Now, after two years of economic downturn, which has produced a doubling of the unemployed in North America, people like myself may have to make the same choice that my parents made in the seventies. How will I lower my expenses, if I am not able to find a job that pays as well as my former position? What if I remain unemployed through the winter?

In the past several years I have supplemented about half of my home heating with wood. I didn’t do it for economic reasons, even though wood is less expensive than conventional fuels. I heat with wood partly because I enjoy the process and partly for environmental reasons. I wanted to reduce the average age of the carbon that I emit to the atmosphere while heating my home. Instead of using all natural gas, like my neighbours, with a carbon age of millions of years, I would substitute some forty year old carbon recovered from the local green waste collection program. This wood is free and does not end up in the local land fill or compost heap, so it produces heat instead of rotting in a pile.

When income runs out, people start looking for ways to cut future expenses. There are things that you can cut, and things that can’t be cut without causing pain in the household. Cutting down on groceries is difficult for the household but cutting down on restaurant food or take out is not painful. Entertainment can also be reduced considerably without pain for the family by cutting back on movie rentals and cancelling cable and going back to an antenna. Cable costs real money but the antenna television, while limited, is free. Household heating is another large expense for the average North American family. Heat cannot be eliminated, but it cost can be reduced. Considering that I was already heating partly with wood, this was a good place for me to start.

I know that over the past five heating seasons, I have needed approximately 65 million BTUs to keep my family warm. Whether I use natural gas or wood, I will still need about 65 million BTU. On the cost side, my delivered gas price tends to run about $1.70 per CCF (CCF=100cu ft). If I need 65 million BTUs, and when using my efficient (94 per cent) furnace, I will need 691 CCF to heat my home for the winter. That makes my heating costs about $1175 for the winter if I only used Natural Gas.

Given the consistency of the heating needs, I can plan for this amount of heat for the next winter. The half of our heat, or about 33 million BTU, I’ve been supplying with wood translates to around two cords of wood. To lower my heating costs from last year, I could just double my wood supply, which would reduce my conventional fuel by the remaining 50 per cent, or about $575 in natural gas costs. Additionally, because our forced hot air furnace uses electricity to move the warm air around the house, I will probably see a reduction in our electricity bill as well.

Since I knew that layoffs were going to happen at the time of my company’s purchase, I had already collected and prepared three cords of wood by the spring of this year. I did not know for sure that I would be laid off, but I needed to have this wood cut early in the spring just in case so it would have the entire summer to properly season. Now that my situation is confirmed, I have started to collect my fourth cord. I still don’t know if I will use this wood or if it will dry enough by mid winter, but I am getting it ready so that the option is available.

When faced with the need to reduce my heating expenses during difficult times, it is good to know that I do have the same options that my parents had in the seventies. I can heat my house using wood cut from a local source. In this case, I am not cutting from my own personal woodlot like my dad, but am recovering wood from our town’s green waste program. In some ways, it is better. I can let my own trees grow, and prevent green waste from going to the land fill or compost pile.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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